BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – The race shop in Speedway, Ind., is a little less spacious these days. The transporters in the tiered parking lot at Barber Motorsports Park are stark white. Twin No. 20 Chevrolet-powered cars are poised on pit lane to attack the 16 turns of the serpentine 2.38-mile road course.
The rebranded and reorganized CFH Racing – formerly Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing – for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season is in transition. But on a gorgeous autumn day, personnel (sans drivers) don matching logoed shirts as they efficiently prep for the initial on-track session as a unit.
“More than anything, it’s good to get the organization working together,” team manager Andy O’Gara (photo right) says of the one-day test program. “It’s nice here to be able to bounce back and forth between the timing stands and nice to have (team co-owner/driver) Ed (Carpenter) and (general manager) Tim (Broyles) and the engineers, myself and the drivers really start communicating from a track perspective and getting to feel that dynamic.
“It’s helping position ourselves so that when we’ll be able to test aero kits in March and April we’ll be ready to go and be efficient with that time. It’s a big change for all of us in figuring out how the shop works, a new engine partner, having a teammate and then bringing aero kits into the equation and having the engineering staff wrap their heads around everything.
“In this offseason so far, the Chevy side of it has been one of the simpler things.”
Josef Newgarden, the 2011 Indy Lights champion who enters his fourth season with the team, was joined for the development session by Verizon IndyCar Series veteran JR Hildebrand in the companion Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka car. O’Gara will remain the race strategist for Newgarden’s No. 67 entry, with Jeremy Milless as the race engineer for a second season. Matt Barnes continues as the chief engineer for the other car/driver combination.
Newgarden tied his career-best finish of second in mid-July at Iowa Speedway and also had a top five at Milwaukee. He closed the season with four consecutive top-five qualifying runs that resulted in three top-10 finishes.
“I’m anxious to get another year with him; I think we have good things in store,” O’Gara said. “Getting Josef back in a race car and making sure that he stays fresh and involved in the engineering meetings is a key to our offseason. Here. it’s good for him to feel the difference in power band and peak curves in the Chevy versus what he had been used to with Honda.”
Newgarden, who turns 24 on Dec. 22, also is anxious to start the season. The test program will aid in laying a course for 2015 that includes the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the bucolic venue. Newgarden started fourth in the race in April.
“Generally, when you go into the offseason it’s a big redevelopment every year so you come down here in October to figure out the path you want to take,” he said. “Our engineers will figure that out over the next few months, developing new dampers and new systems for the car.”
Hildebrand, who qualified ninth and placed 10th in the Indianapolis 500 in May driving the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing-prepared car, is seeking to return to the series in a more permanent capacity. Providing chassis setup feedback and imparting his knowledge of the nuances of Chevy’s 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged, direct-injection V6 engine, the outing was a thinly veiled assessment of the driver on and off the track.
Mike Conway, who won two street course races this season in the No. 20 car, was unavailable for the test day. Carpenter, who won at Texas Motor Speedway in one of the six oval races he competed in this season, said he would like the Englishman to return for a second season. Conway also is a Toyota test and reserve driver in the World Endurance Championship, and is awaiting word on whether he’ll be one of the Japanese manufacturer’s regular TS040 Hybrid LMP1 drivers for 2015.
“It’s still up in the air with Mike. It’s a relationship we’d like to see continue, but it’s a little bit out of our control with what happens so we wanted to take the opportunity to get a read on JR at Barber," Carpenter said. "We knew from working with him in May that he’s technical and would come in and execute our test plan, but we also wanted to get a feel for his ability and pace and what he could possibly look like as an option for us. I want Mike to come back, though I’m not going to enter into an agreement with somebody if we’re going to lose him for a couple of races.”
Hildebrand, 26, the Indianapolis 500 runner-up as a rookie in 2011, won the 2009 Indy Lights championship and made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in 2010 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. He joined Panther Racing for the full 2011 and 2012 seasons, and competed in seven races for Panther Racing and Barracuda Racing in 2013 (best finish of fifth at Long Beach). The Indy 500 was his lone race this season.
“INDYCAR is where I want to be and I’ve made no bones about letting it be known that I enjoyed my experience with ECR at Indy and wanting to continue that in whatever capacity,” he said. “The team is here to bang through some things and start getting on the same page. I’m trying to help with that as much as possible and get back out here. It’s been a year and some change since I was in an IndyCar on a road course so it’s great to get back in the car and get up to speed quickly.”